Iceland’s Distinctive Approach to Solving Its Coronavirus Problem

The authorities acted quickly and comprehensively

Houses in the city of Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland's capital of Reykjavik.
Gerd Eichmann/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / June 2, 2020 8:00 am

When it comes to countries with success stories in combatting the coronavirus, there are few bright spots to look towards, Iceland being one of them. The small island nation’s progress against the pandemic resulted in a resumption of its tourism industry. Iceland was also one of the first places where film and television shoots resumed. It’s an impressive record for a country that knows a thing or two about inspiring narratives. But the questions remain: how did Iceland pull off this accomplishment, and is there anything that other countries can learn from their example?

Writing at The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert offers a look inside Iceland’s pandemic response. Kolbert notes that, relatively speaking, the spread of COVID-19 in Iceland occurred at an unnervingly rapid pace:

By mid-March, confirmed COVID cases in Iceland were increasing at a rate of sixty, seventy, even a hundred a day. As a proportion of the country’s population, this was far faster than the rate at which cases in the United States were growing.

The country’s response included widespread testing, contact tracing and an imposition of a quarantine for international travelers. The expansive approach to testing paid off — Kolbert discusses the work done by the biotech company deCODE, which played a significant role in the nation’s response:

… by testing people who had no symptoms, or only very mild ones, deCODE picked up many cases that otherwise would have been missed. These cases, too, were referred to the tracing team. By May 17th, Iceland had tested 15.5 per cent of its population for the virus. In the U.S., the figure was 3.4 per cent.

The speed and depth of the country’s response is a thing to behold. As Kolbert notes, Iceland still faces some issues — notably, COVID-19’s effect on tourism, which is a big part of the local economy. But there’s a lot to learn from this country’s example, both for now and for future pandemics.

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